Review: Aristocrats (Donmar Warehouse)

Lyndsey Turner directs Brian Friel’s underperformed play about a family coming together in their old house in Ballybeg

Ailsing Loftus and David Dawson in Aristocrats
Ailsing Loftus and David Dawson in Aristocrats
© Johan Persson

Aristocrats is the fourth play by the late and very great Brian Friel that Lyndsey Turner has directed at the Donmar Warehouse. Her productions of Philadelphia Here I Come, Fathers and Sons (his adaptation of Turgenev) and Faith Healer were revelatory, displaying a rare sympathy and understanding.

Aristocrats is not in the same league. It was written in 1979, the same year as Faith Healer and the year before Translations yet feels much less assured than those two masterpieces. It was a piece for which Friel had great affection, but it seems to strain effect, consciously evoking the comparisons with Chekhov that his best works summon effortlessly. Perhaps to fight this tendency, Turner has decided to use an anti-naturalistic approach, so abstract that it pulls both the emotion and the humour out of the play.

The setting is the decaying Big House above Ballybeg, where the O'Donnell family have gathered for a family wedding. There are three sisters present, and one brother, and all are unhappy in some way, trapped by a past in which they were "a family that lived in total isolation in a gaunt Georgian house on top of a hill". The nature of their history is slippery. An American historian who is writing a thesis on the role of the Catholic aristocrats is also present, and his questioning reveals not only the family's anomalous position, but also the way the family seem to be clinging to a vision of a life they never led, dreaming of a home that is illusory. The dreamy, odd brother Casimir, born after Yeats died, remembers Yeats sitting in the hall and his grandfather hearing Chopin play the piano.

Against this imagined past, stands today's grim reality. They have no money, the house is falling down. Their uncle flits around like a ghost and their father is upstairs, dying. His disembodied voice floats from a baby monitor, confused but still exercising his control over the children below. Another disembodied voice – that of the fourth sister Anna, sending a message from the African convent to which she vanished 20 years before – precipitates a crisis. The play ends with a scene of leave-taking, very like that in The Cherry Orchard.

It is all very artful and self-conscious; you feel Friel limbering up to tackle big themes about history and love (the person who values the house most is Eamon, whose mother worked there, and who has married one of the sisters) and the big and small lies of family life which of course stands both for itself and for Ireland, but it never quite takes flight. (The American historian, in particular, is a clumsy device.)

Turner directs with her usual sensitivity but her decision with her designer Es Devlin to set the piece in an abstract blue box, with a back wall on which a historical painting gradually appears, and the mansion represented by a doll's house full of miniatures, is distancing and unhelpful. It's as if the family are living in an elegant furniture showroom not a crumbling home that they are desperate to escape.

In the first half this artificiality seems to affect the performances, too. Everyone seems a little stilted and unreal, whether it is Elaine Cassidy's elegantly alcoholic Alice, posing on the sidelines, or Aisling Loftus' piano-playing Claire, fending off the reality of her forthcoming marriage with an imaginary game of croquet with the well-off local handyman Willie (another Chekhovian figure, nicely played by David Ganly).

Perhaps the slight air of unreality is deliberate, because it is certainly true that in the second half the performances deepen and darken and find their key. David Dawson is particularly impressive as Casimir, all restless hands and anxious eyes and Eileen Walsh finds a resonant calmness as Judith, holding it all together, writing endless lists, determined to make a new life for herself.

It's typical of the slight oddity of the play that her revelation about a lost child is just thrown in; we are left to draw our own inference about the true story, piecing together fragments to realise just how tyrannical her father's rule has been, just how great the cost of the family's "greed for survival". It's good to see this under-performed piece, but compared with the roaringly magnificent production of Translations now running at the National, it feels like Friel in minor mode.